Like fellow musical chameleon Beck, Ben Harper understands the breadth of modern music's vocabulary, from folk to urban blues, reggae to rock. "The Will to Live," Harper's diverse and occasionally brilliant new album, signals his arrival at an impressive command of that vocabulary. His third album in as many years, "The Will" finds the California singer-songwriter expanding his sonic palette, his lyrical style still stripped down and elemental (sometimes too much so), but his musical vision more assured.
Harper and his band, the Innocent Criminals, are equal-opportunity deployers of musical styles here: "Mama's Trippin'" is a horn-powered funk delight; the ballad "Roses From My Friends" subtly appropriates a Beatles-like songcraft (right down to the strings and the tapes run backwards); and "Jah Work" weds Harper's shimmering guitar work to a Trenchtown backbeat Bob Marley would have been proud of.
But through it all shines Harper's guitar work (his use of the Weissenborn acoustic lap guitar is his trademark) -- and his voice. Moving from a plaintive whisper to a sinewy growl, it bears hints of other singers such as Cat Stevens and Dave Matthews, but mostly it is unmistakably his own. On "I Want to Be Ready," Harper's raw, austere voice is the embodiment of sorrow and ache. When he sings the chorus, "I want to be ready/Ready to put on my long white robe," you believe him. These are the words of someone who clearly relishes the spiritual potential of music.
Sometimes Harper's observations ("We must all have the will to live") are less than profound, and sometimes his poetry ("There is no night/There is no day/It is all one shade of gray") is tepid and facile, contradicting the complexity of his music. But other tracks fulfill the lyric and musical promise of earlier work. "Widow of a Living Man" is rife with an audible pain, and "Glory & Consequence" (my vote for the FM single) puts Harper's everyman hopes and fears against a backdrop rich with tension and drive. On "Ashes," where Harper grafts jazz saxophone stylings to a country waltz straight out of the Old West, Harper shows a rueful, quietly profound embrace of love's often-bitter realities: "Meeting is such sweet sorrow/'Cause someday we may have to part/Hush, don't you make a sound/You're gonna let me down."
There are few things more exciting than discovering a songwriter discovering his voice, and Ben Harper is doing that on "The Will To Live." As his musical vision matures and his confidence continues to grow, Harper will soon rock hard with the best of them.